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Soapbox: About the Industry

Designing Amidst the Tides of Gaming History

by Sandy Antunes
Jul 08,2003

 

Designing Amidst the Tides of Gaming History

Game designers who fail to change their approach get labeled as retro or stale. Game designers who ignore lessons of past games are branded as amateur. So, in creating a new game system, there must be a 'sweet spot' between "slavish devotion to older gaming styles" and "marking off new territory".

We want to be neither 'new for newness sake' nor 'mired in old baggage'. We just want to be kick-butt game designers. That involves balancing the weight of gaming history with the need to update the state of the art.

Gaming History

To paraphrase the old acting joke, it seems game rule systems go through 4 stages:

  1. What is this game?
  2. I want that game!
  3. I want an updated edition of that game!
  4. What is that game?

It may seem obvious to state that there are a lot of really good lessons from earlier games, that are often either ignored or reinvented now. Basic Role Playing System (BRPS) "introduced" drama as a deciding resolution possibility. Numerous games provided different ways to tweak the crunchy/light mix to ensure good play. Hundreds of different mechanics and avenues have already been explored.

Even social issues relating to gaming are old hat. For example, D&D in 1979 (blue book) introduction yields:

"The most extensive requirement is time. The campaign referee will have to have sufficient time to meet the demands of his players, he will have to devote a number of hours [etc etc]."

Here's a 24-year old book presenting what is still the most common complaint among the RPGnet forums: finding people with enough time to play, or carving out time ourselves.

Data

Meanwhile, in the science field, we find (instead of old rule books) we have a lot of old data. Data is even less organized than an RPG book without an index. It just sort of 'is'. But like RPG rules, data lets you create meaningful concepts.

A lot of astronomy data is looked at by its principal investigator (PI) for something specific. Really, data has 5 'lives'.

  1. The original proposal by the PI, e.g. 'looking for cornonal emissions from DI Peg, an Algol-type system'. Sort of the pass/fail of the research world.
  2. Survey. Someone decides to do a survey study among existing data, e.g. "Light curves from all Algol-type systems".
  3. Unexpected. Someone finds a new thing to look for, sometimes due to better theoretical understanding. "Coronal sources should be iron-enhanced, so let's reanalyze DI Peg, specifically looking for iron lines."
  4. Data-mining. Searching an archive for a given property. "Looking for all sources with X-ray emission above a given threshold... hey, DI Peg matched!"
  5. Grad students. Doing their thesis on a topic, use archival data to support. "Dissertation on coronal systems, using data from DI Peg and others".

So data is often used beyond its initial acquisition. We should apply the same principals of new-reuse when looking at earlier game development.

Tying It Together

From this, I would suggest that any would-be game designer should take a data-similar approach to game design. This involves both knowing and rejecting the entire past history of game design.

  1. Original rulebooks can be leafed through, then discarded. Their time has passed. Familiarize yourself with their concepts, but don't feel you have to read everything ever produced.
  2. Survey. This is where you take a high-level look at previous works (occasionally using secondary sources, e.g. someone else's essay on a particular game design line). It is useful to understand the broad trends games went through. Matching an older trend will get you labeled as 'retro', a technique that really only helps if you're "Hackmaster". Understanding the current 'state of the art' will give you an idea of what the current customer base is looking at.
  3. Unexpected inspirations. This is joy of mining nuggets of game design innovation that were in earlier games, but are still applicable. In short, stealing earlier designer's neat ideas. I would suggest the sole reason to read old game books is to get inspired, rather than to memorize or 'learn'.
  4. Deconstruction, or concept-mining. Given a problem ('how to balance drama with dicing', for example), you can look through the past history of game design to see how others solved it. As with any deconstructionist project, you are taking only the good bits from the past and discarding the excess, reconstructing it with new material to make a new creation.

So the simple answer to our original issue is that any good game design must have both familiar and novel elements from past designs, plus insight from the designer that adds something new. One has to have the ability to understand what was good in order to create new works that don't suck.

It is not enough to just create, nor is study of past works the sole solution to creating new systems. A bit of historian and a bit of inventor must mix to create a viable new work in today's market. Neglecting either component is folly.

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What do you think?

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All Soapboxes

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